I wrote in an earlier post about Warren Buffett’s concept of The Ovarian Lottery. On a related note, I was reminded the other day of a chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. It’s a fantastic book in general (as are all of his), but I was particularly enthralled with the chapter where Gladwell makes an interesting observation about the 75 richest people in history.
Not surprisingly, many of the people on this list are Americans. What is surprising, however, is that an astonishing 14 of the 75 (nearly 20%) are rich Americans who were born within 9 years of each other.
Here are the 14 and their respective positions on the list:
01. John Rockefeller, 1839.
02. Andrew Carnegie, 1835.
28.Frederick Weyerhaeuser, 1834.
33. Jay Gould, 1836.
34. Marshall Field, 1834.
35. George Baker, 1840.
36. Hetty Green, 1834.
44. James G. Fair, 1831.
54. Henry H. Rogers, 1840.
57. J.P. Morgan, 1837.
58. Oliver Payne, 1839.
62. George Pullman, 1831.
64. Peter Widener, 1834.
65. Philip Armor, 1832.
The case Gladwell is making here is the empirical version of the argument Buffett (who, by the way, happens to be fairly high on that list himself) made hypothetically with his illustration of the Ovarian Lottery. Again, it goes something like this:
It’s not amazing genes or big brains or prodigious talent that ultimately matters in determining one’s success. What matters is the situation an individual is placed into. Every decade produces roughly the same number of gifted children as did the 1830’s. The difference was that for this brief period of time the economic and political “stars” aligned in just the right way so that those who had the talent and could take advantage of that which they had been given unlike any other generation before or after them.
Gladwell and Buffett are trying to help people understand the old adage in psychology, “Nurture is the soil for nature’s seed”. The seeds are plentiful. Optimal growing conditions are not. As mentioned in the Ovarian Lottery post, the implications of this are not to be taken lightly.